Nevertheless, it is well to have the means at our disposal of introducing these minutiae without any additional trouble, for they will sometimes be found to give an air of variety beyond expectation to the scene represented.
-William Henry Fox Talbot, The Pencil of Nature (from Plate 10)
I wrote a paper for a class recently, and although I apparently went off subject (fancy that!) I did get a wonderful book recommendation out of it. I had understood the assignment to be asking for a comparison of four works of art from the rather vast period around Impressionism, Post-impressionism, ism and isms and so on, (the ambitiousness of survey courses are a marvel- either that or a sickness). My paper had less to do with terms like Romanticism and Sublime than it did with what I saw as the influence of the development of photography on painting. When she returned my paper, my professor suggested that I might be interested in reading The Pencil of Nature.
The chief object of the present work is to place on record some of the early beginnings of a new art, before the period, which we trust is approaching, of its being brought to maturity by the aid of British talent. (Plate VI)
That is all. Everything that is wonderful, interesting, and funny about this book is found in that sentence. First a brief primer if you are unfamiliar with what is considered the world of photography’s Gutenberg Bible:
This book is the first ever that used photographic prints. Talbot worked for many years to develop, or rather improve what the Camera Obscura promised. He wanted very much to be able to record the lakes of Como, but had to acknowledge his lack of artistic talent that was required to faithfully render a scene- even the less daunting amount of skill which the Camera Obscura could sublimate was lost in his hand. As is often the case other people around the world were hard at work on this problem as well, and when M. Daguerre made his famed announcement in 1839, Mr. Talbot was seriously put out. But! Wait! the esteemed M. Daguerre had not described his method, so in furious haste to save the reputation of mother England!! Talbot published his method (which differed from the Daguerreotype) and thereby save the false sense of superiority that nationalistic hubris so generously dispenses. This national pride business is all very charming- right up until the moment people start getting killed- “aid of British talent,” indeed! but I digress-
Accompanying his Plate III, Articles of China, is this most pragmatic observation:
And should a thief afterwards purloin the treasures- if the mute testimony of the picture were to be produced against him in court- it would certainly be evidence of a novel kind; but what the judge and jury might say to it, is a matter which I leave to the speculation of those who possess legal acumen.
I find his earnest insistence on the practical applications of photography to be very endearing. His description of his learning process is as fascinating as it is truly impressive: that this period in time was a fecundity of inquiry, experiment and discovery by what today would be considered laymen is wonderful. It seems to have been a time when people simply found the world to be fascination, and the whys and hows were somewhat within their reach. Their invigorating spirit still has the power to inspire.
In my first account of “The Art of Photogenic Drawing,” read to the Royal Society in January, 1839, I mentioned this building as being the first “that was ever yet known to have drawn its own picture.” (Plate XV)
“Drawn its own picture,” that is the primary reason why this book remains a delight. Try as he might to promote his English sense of pragmatism, Talbot has an immediate and innate sense that what is really occurring with the development of this new device is – Art. That which the artist brings to the equipment is increased by what the equipment brings to the paper- despite its practical uses, that pencil of nature remains in the domain of mystery, discovery, serendipity, thoughtfulness, and creativity that is “beyond expectation.”
As an art form photography endures, taking its place in the “Genius of Repose” which Talbot ascribes to Oxford in the summer season, but which I would say is really the the breath of beauty that art holds, even for a moment, in sublime stillness.